Monday, January 21, 2013

Political Weddings & Divorces, Funerals and Family Sagas

Seismologik Intelligence

This weekend, I attended a politicalmarriage, divorce, and funeral.  "Wewere a real family... albeit with a lot of incest..." explained PeterStaley at the funeral of Spencer Cox at the Cutting Room on Sunday afternoon. The day before, Occupy converged downtown for a street action on the anniversary of the Citizen's United Supreme Court ruling; Sunday we would reflect on the life of a beloved AIDS activist.  Between the goodbye for Spencer Cox and the Occupy re birth, the whole weekend felt like a family reunion.

Creative Direct Action
After a year of our movements ebbing and flowing, a group of veterans of  Occupy Wall Street started meeting a few weeks ago to get things started again. 

As my friend Felix explained on Facebook on January 3
"Sometimes the world forces me to act up in certain manner in order to bring some color into our lives… Creative Direct Action can and will change the world."

Foto by Weltenbummler Mag- Thanx!

I chimed in: "Felix, we need your festive brand of creative direct action."  Over facebook we talked about the possibilities of joy in the face of all this misery.

And we were off. A prime motive for the action was art and freedom.  Felix has been a bit of a hero in Occupy lore for bring a queer defiance to his activism, even when the NYPD has tried to slow him down. But there are only so many times a movement wants to take a gut punch.  Art has a way of disarming or proposing questions, it is a way to fight back and show we are still free.
Felix Rivera-Pitre

Felix and Billy started organizing meetings at 60 Wall Street. 

Felix explained the rationale:
"we are just a group of artist fighting for freedom of speech and social justice just like you. Every group has the autonomy to create their own actions, the fact that there was another group that got started at the same time and we all though in both groups that this is just a sign that we are all in the same frame of mind and decide to work together so both groups join. We are not the only Direct Action Group out there."

We hoped art would be as much of the action as possible, art which could challenge systems of power busy imposing systems of the normal where artists and activists and dreamers dwelled.

"You don't own our joy."  Those are the words in my notebook from a January 10th Times Up! meeting.
After the first direct action meeting, we would call for actions all around Wall Street for the weekend of the disastrous Citizens United decision.   It was going to be MLK weekend and a time for us to declare that if corporations are people: we need a divorce. 

Times Up! would organize a bike ride to the action.

Escape Ride from Citi Bank's Proposed Forced Marriage to Bike Culture!

January 19th is the third anniversary of the Citizen United decision finding that corporations have the legal rights of people. And now Citi bank is trying to marry #bikenyc:

Join Times Up! to remind the world that corporate sponsors do not make good partners and ride to escape this forced marriage with street theatrics and direct action:

Photo by Mickey Z Vegan

Leaving ABC No Rio at 1:30, we will run from the bike of corporate greed, staging wedding processions and offering time to object at several Citi Bank locations on our way to the city-wide action against Citizen's United at 4pm. Wear wedding costumes, bring rice and kazoos!

At our best, Times Up! has brought energy and a spirit of rambunctious fun to OWS actions, organizing bike block to take part in the movement's earliest actions.   January 19th would be no different.  

With Citizens United in mind, Times Up! suggested that while there are benefits to Citigroup supporting a bike share program in New York, there are limitations to corporate branding of biking in the city. There are limits to corporations using cycles to greenwash their message.

Some argued we were not picking our target wisely.  But as Keegan, one of the prime organizers for the action noted,  "for us, bicycling is about activism, for our community of nyc and the environment worldwide. citibank does not get a pass on foreclosing on our friends here in new york or funding tar sands in canada because they are buying the cheapest advertising space in nyc that happens to be on bikes."
So we would take on Citibank and their Citibikes, organizing prop making meetings to make props.
The day of the action, we all met at ABC No Rio, ran through the first of several of our skits on the proposed shotgun marriage between banks and bikes, communities and corporations

Pre action prop making. Photos by Barbara Ross

More than a little rough around the edges, we take pride in the adage that the performance is a rehearsal and the rehearsal is the performance.

Photos from Gammablog

In between the histrionics, Peter  noticed a car parked in a bike lane.  I walked over to check out the car with a man inside on the phone talking, while looking at us.   

"I guess they are paying attention to the facebook invites" someone noted.

He followed us to the next Citibank, finding another bike lane to park in.

And another in Chinatown, where he watched as we performed the skit again, declaring we want a divorce from corporations, autonomy from their gaze.

Someone in the group noted he was not planning to arrest anyone but wanted us not to block the entrance to the bank.   I walked up to him and asked if he could possibly stop blocking the bike lanes, or park somewhere besides a bike lane when tracking us.  He shook his head, explaining he could not. What about the law I asked.  He said he did not care.

Weary of more arrests, the Times Up gang rode to Wall Street to join the next faux wedding action.

We hoped the action would challenge the sense that corporations can and should colonize our cities and streets, our bikes, imagination, and even our democracy.  After all, the damage of Citizens United is far reaching.  And this is why we were fighting Citizens United all weekend long. The weekend news was abuzz with stories about the social and economic damages of expanding income inequality, propelled by corporate influence on the political system.  They lobby against  laws or policies which support a fair economy, progressive taxation, earned income tax credits, public education and social safety net provisions.  As Oxfam notes in a January 18th press briefing: The cost of inequality: how wealth and income extremes hurt us all.

The world must urgently set goals to tackle extreme inequality and extreme wealth

It is now widely accepted that rapidly growing extreme wealth and inequality are harmful to human progress, and that something needs to be done. Already this year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report rated inequality as one of the top global risks of 2013 agree. Around the world, the Occupy protests demonstrated the increasing public anger and feeling that inequality has gone too far.

In the last decade, the focus has been exclusively on one half of the inequality equation - ending extreme poverty. Inequality and the extreme wealth that contributes to it were seen as either not relevant, or a prerequisite for the growth that would also help the poorest, as the wealth created trickled down to the benefit of everyone.

There has been great progress in the fight against extreme poverty. Hundreds of millions of people have seen their lives improve dramatically – an historically unprecedented achievement of which the world should be proud. But as we look to the next decade, and new development goals we need to define progress, we must demonstrate that we are also tackling inequality- and that means looking at not just the poorest but the richest. Oxfam believes that reducing inequality is a key part of fighting poverty and securing a sustainable future for all. In a world of finite resources, we cannot end poverty unless we reduce inequality rapidly.

That is why we are calling for a new global goal to end extreme wealth by 2025, and reverse the rapid increase in inequality seen in the majority of countries in the last twenty years, taking inequality back to 1990 levels.

Extreme wealth and inequality are reaching levels never before seen and are getting worse

Over the last thirty years inequality has grown dramatically in many countries. In the US the share of national income going to the top 1% has doubled since 1980 from 10 to 20%. For the top 0.01% it has quadrupled to levels never seen before. At a global level, the top 1% (60 million people), and particularly the even more select few in the top 0.01% (600,000 individuals - there are around 1200 billionaires in the world), the last thirty years has been an incredible feeding frenzy. This is not confined to the US, or indeed to rich countries. In the UK inequality is rapidly returning to levels not seen since the time of Charles Dickens. In China the top 10% now take home nearly 60% of the income. Chinese inequality levels are now similar to those in South Africa, which are now the most unequal country on earth and significantly more unequal than at the end of apartheid. Even in many of the poorest countries, inequality has rapidly grown. Globally the incomes of the top 1% have increased 60% in twenty years. The growth in income for the 0.01% has been even greater.

Following the financial crisis, the process has accelerated, with the top 1% further increasing their share of income. The luxury goods market has registered double digit growth every year since the crisis hit. Whether it is a sports car or a super-yacht, caviar or champagne, there has never been a bigger demand for the most expensive luxuries.

The IMF has said that inequality is dangerous and divisive and could lead to civil unrest. Polling shows the public is increasingly concerned about growing inequality in many countries, and by people across the political spectrum.

Extreme wealth and inequality is economically inefficient

A growing chorus of voices is pointing to the fact that whilst a certain level of inequality may benefit growth by rewarding risk takers and innovation, the levels of inequality now being seen are in fact economically damaging and inefficient. They limit the overall amount of growth, and at the same time mean that growth fails to benefit the majority. Consolidation of so much wealth and capital in so few hands is inefficient because it depresses demand, a point made famous by Henry Ford and more recently billionaire Nick Hanauer in his much-discussed TED talk. There quite simply is a limit to how many luxury yachts a person could want or own. Wages in many countries have barely risen in real terms for many years, with the majority of the gains being to capital instead.  If this money were instead more evenly spread across the population then it would give more people more spending power, which in turn would drive growth and drive down inequality. The top 100 billionaires added $240 billion to their wealth in 2012- enough to end world poverty four times over. As a result growth in more equal countries is much more effective at reducing poverty. Oxfam research has shown that because it is so unequal, in South Africa even with sustained economic growth a million more people will be pushed into poverty by 2020 unless action is taken.

Extreme Wealth and Inequality is Politically Corrosive

If, in the words of the old adage ‘money equals power’ then more unequal societies represent a threat to meaningful democracy. This power can be exercised legally, with hundreds of millions spent each year in many countries on lobbying politicians, or illegitimately with money used to corrupt the political process and purchase democratic decision making. Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out the way in which financial liberalisation led to huge power for the financial industry, which in turn has led to further liberalisation. In the UK the governing Conservative party receives over half its donations from the financial services industry. Capture of politics by elites is also very prevalent in developing countries, leading to policies that benefit the richest few and not the poor majority, even in democracies.

Extreme Wealth and Inequality is Socially Divisive

Extreme Wealth and Inequality is Environmentally Destructive

Extreme Wealth and Inequality is un ethical

Extreme wealth and inequality is not inevitable

After the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s, huge steps were taken to tackle inequality and vested interests. President Roosevelt said that the ‘political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality’. These steps were echoed in Europe after World War Two, leading to three decades of increasing prosperity and reduced inequality. Similarly the growth of the Asian tiger economies like Korea was achieved whilst reducing inequality and meant the benefits were widely spread across their societies. More recently, countries like Brazil, once a poster child for extreme inequality, have managed to buck the global trend and prosper whilst reducing inequality.

The policies required to reduce inequality are also well known. Decent work for decent wages has had a huge impact. The rise in the power of capital over labour has been identified by Paul Krugman among many others as a key cause of the recent crisis and one that means that assets are not being used productively, in turn reducing demand.
Free public services are crucial to levelling the playing field. In countries like Sweden, knowing that if you get sick or that you will receive good treatment regardless of your income, is one of the greatest achievements and the greatest equalisers of the modern world. Knowing that if you lose your job, or fall on hard times, there is a safety net to help you and your family, is also key to tackling inequality. Similarly, access to good quality education for all is a huge weapon against inequality.

Finally, regulation and taxation play a critical role in reining in extreme wealth and inequality. Limits to bonuses, or to how much people can earn as a multiple of the earnings of the lowest paid, limits to interest rates, limits to capital accumulation are all only recently-abandoned policy instruments that can be revived. Progressive taxation that redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor is essential, but currently the opposite is the case – taxation is increasingly regressive and the poor pay higher effective tax rates than the rich, a point recently highlighted by Warren Buffet among others, who has called for greater taxes on the rich. Cracking down on tax avoidance and tax evasion goes hand in hand with more progressive taxation. Closing tax havens and ending the global race to the bottom on taxation, for example with a globally agreed minimum rate of corporation tax would make a huge difference It is estimated that up to a quarter of all global wealth – as much as $32 trillion - is held offshore. If these assets were taxed according to capital gains taxes in different countries, they could yield at least $189 billion in additional tax revenues.

End extreme wealth and inequality

Whatever the combination of policies pursued, the first step is for the world to recognise this as the goal. There are many steps that can be taken to reverse inequality. The benefits are huge, for the poorest – but also for the richest. We cannot afford to have a world of extreme wealth and extreme inequality. We cannot afford to have a world where inequality continues to grow in the majority of countries. In a world of increasingly scarce resources, reducing inequality is more important than ever. It needs to be reduced and quickly.

An end to extreme wealth by 2025. Reversing increasing extreme inequality and aim to return inequality to 1990 levels.

Walking down to 60 Wall Street, I greeted the gang, Jack, Felix, Monica, Joe, and everyone else.
Everyone was getting ready for the faux wedding.

Occupy Wall Street would like to invite you
to the joining in
(un-)holy matrimony of a real human being to a non-human corporate “person” to celebrate the 3rd anniversary of Citizen's United, granting corporations equal rights as living things. So why not ask for their hand in marriage?
at 3:30 pm on Saturday, 
January 19, 2013 
Please arrive at 60 Wall St, where the wedding 
party will then proceed to the steps of Federal 
Hall for the ceremony.

Please dress in formal wedding attire either in corporate gear and suits for the Corporation side or as a human being on the Human side. Bring signs that match accordingly- protesting the union or encouraging/ branding it with corp. logos.

The Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir will preside. Reception to follow with cake and merriment.

While the small action seemed slightly silly, the subtext of the action was Citizens United and the movement to amend it:

We the People, Not We the Corporations

                On January 21, 2010, with its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 
             Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons, entitled by the U.S. Constitution to buy
             elections and    run our government. Human beings are people; corporations are legal fictions.

We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United and other related cases, and move to amend our Constitution to firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.  The Supreme Court is misguided in principle, and wrong on the law. In a democracy, the people rule.

We Move to Amend.

". . . corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their 'personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of “We the People” by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."
             ~Supreme Court Justice Stevens, January 2010

show her you care. by jf rose

I hung around 60 Wall Street, chatting with friends, taking photos, and getting ready for  the action.

Top Photo of and below photo by Erik R. McGregor 

Talen would be officiating in the faux marriage between Monica and a corporation, leading the  freaky procession, dressed as his character Reverend Billy.

 Organizers had gotten a permit so they could stage the action on the steps of federal hall. But as usual, the police were using the permit to control the scene.  And it was driving my friend Jenny Heinz crazy.  Heinz is  one of my heroes from the Granny's Peace Brigade, who I had gotten arrested with a decade prior.  She started activism in the civil rights movement four decades prior, only really finding a voice with the consensus process of the global justice and anti war movements.  When the war started in 2003, Heinz and company enlisted to fight so their grandchildren would not have to.  All these years later, she still does not take any shit from police or anyone else.  My friend Bob Kohler used to say he thought activists needed to stay angry to stay involved.  

 Jenny reminds me this is still possible.

On Federal Hall by Stacy Lanyon

But we can also find theatrical ways of saying what we plan to say.
"Do we have any objections to this marriage?" asked Talen
"YES!!!!!!!!!!!" screamed everyone.
"Well, there are no objections," explained Talen proceeding with the vows.
"Do you take this corporation?" he asked Hunken.
Monica started to speak up.
The crowd was riled up, screaming along.
"I believe" someone mic checked.
"I believe" replied the crowd.
"I believe that we can win" we started chant, over and over departing from the square up to Zuccotti.

Saying good bye, I rode home as the sun set over the Brooklyn Bridge. A dynamic splash of colours across the sky.

 Back to the family, dinner, a fire and quiet night.  Like the night before I could not rally for the Spencer Cox party that night.  The intricate mix between friends and family, between public and private lives and spaces is never simple.  Still many revelled in what had been accomplished with the first OWS street action in a while.
Kim Fraczek
Everything was amazing yesterday! We worked so hard with SO MANY GROUPS and created an amazing action. Quickly coordinated a new plan when the NYPD disrupted us with their illegal barriers, kept positive, kept active and got a very important message out. This is just the beginning of what 2013 is going to look like. We are unstoppable.

Felix explained that artful activism, such as this, was more appealing than activist martyrdom, at least for him. All year Felix had been in and out of court.
I had few nervous breakdown during court this last year cuz I was not able to get out of NYC cuz court. The NLG had to arrange enough time for me to do The International AIDS Conferences. I just clear all my cases and if people is counting on me to do this and voicing the same concern that I have realizing that we can do much better outside jail play the game by the rules so we have more leverage when they fucked up (like yesterday for example). This is true diversity of tactics we are thinking outside the box with art and caring for the people who support us and cuz this Revolution should be different than any other Revolution. Yesterday was a success and it was just the beginning.
Activism of the present moment overlaps with historic efforts through these struggles.

Timothy Lunceford

Saying Goodbye Again and Again
In recent weeks, AIDS activists across the country have taken a few minutes pause to reflect on the well lived, frustratingly complicated life of AIDS activist Spencer Cox, who died in December. Sunday was his funeral. Apologies to anyone I misquote.

 Riding over I greeted Kevin by the Gandhi statues on the West corner of Union Square, where was leading the Times Up!  Peace Ride.  I was nervous going.  These can be big moments, but old scores still linger, sometimes making even showing up difficult.  Inside I saw friends from worlds of ACT UP, James Wagner and Barry, Charles King, and Mark Harrington.

 King and Harrington talked about Spencer.  He had his meds, explained Harrington.  He probably thought he could stop taking them and get through it. 

Over the last few weeks I've written about the lines between grief, pain and sanity.  Hamlet entertained the idea of insanity in his soliloquies.  Some suggest this is how he coped.  He explored his crazy, talking it through.  Yet, can we really maintain our sanity by exploring insanity, lettings its extremes dance off the perimeters of the mind?   Maybe this is what crystal is all about?  We need to be allowed to be crazy, to step off for a second.  But what happens if we act instead of contemplating acting? What happens if we stop taking our meds?  What if we can't come back after we've floated out to sea?   HIV has always shown us how unforgiving our bodies are.

Looking up, there was a screen  with Liza, someone quite acquainted with the periphery of her own edges of sanity, singing "Cabaret."   She was hero to so many.

"Its a great video montage," I mentioned to Jay, looking up at the scenes of Liz Taylor, Bette and so on Ron Goldberg had put together. The montage reminded me of what it must have been like to be at Vito Russo film nights at the GAA firehouse in the early 1970's.  Vito's funeral was the stuff of lore for ACT UP members.  Douglas Crimp wrote a seminal essay on the event and Kramer's question: "Who killed Vito Russo?''  Two decades later, Kramer would confess he's grown weary of these eulogies, during his kind hearted eulogy for Cox.  And we were still passing on that collective memory and culture. 

"If there was ever a question that Spencer wanted to be the center of everything, this is it," Ron Goldberg greeted everyone.

"I'm Ron Goldberg. Welcome to ACT UP. Old habits die hard."
I sat with Karen Ramspacher, my buddy from the Church Ladies and New Alternatives for LGBT Youth. She had worked with Cox in her early ACT UP days.  It was good to sit there chatting with her.

 "This is the song that was running through my head all night while seeing so many ACT UP friends, thinking of those who were missing and looking at pictures of Spencer.  Just the way you look tonight in my heart..."she later posted on facebook.

"Lets not sit around and wait for the government. Let do it for ourselves," Cox was remembered saying in eulogy after eulogy, from friends, his brother, his supporters.  

So many were so funny. Carly Summerstein talked about his last days, reminding everyone he was happy until the very end and hoped to leave the hospital.  "He wasn't too religious, but I am," she explained quoting Matthew 15:11. "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles." She paused, screaming "King James baby!"  The room roared in laughter. "Take it to the bank."

Nick Cox, Spencer's brother, followed recounting stories of his Spencer figuring a way to win a prize by getting the low score in an Easter egg hunt, "gaming the system at the age of two."  It was one ridiculously irreverent story after another.

"Do you believe in god," he was asked on the admissions interview to a prestigious prep school.
"No, but its totally OK if you do," he responded putting his hand on the arm on the priest."

"How can the dead be dead be truly gone when they still live in the hearts of the souls left behind," he quoted Carson McCullers.  "I know Spencer hated sentimentality so I wanted to get him one more time."
The room roared with laughter.

"Its amazing how funny his brother was," I told Karen, who reminded me he was probably not the only theater fan in the family.

Its not easy to deliver a eulogy without breaking.

And then his mother spoke.

And I could hear quiet weeping behind me.

"He was my gateway gay," explained high school friend Moxie Magnus.

Some quoted Tennessee Williams, others Spencer himself, the divide between humour and melancholy continuing 

"He was a funny guy," I commented to Karen.
"That's why we are all here."

"There was always something fragile to him" explained Laurie Garret.  "He was the Blanche DuBoius of the TAG gang."

One story after another of memories.  "Don't ever apologize for who you are," he told a college buddy just coming out.

Greg G remembered moral courage.

But he was also scared friends reported. "Whenever he was at a party and someone would say they were living with AIDS, he said he was dying of AIDS." 

AIDS traumatized him, like many of his generation.

The weeping behind me started again.

And the final two eulogies. John Voelcker recalled going to get tested with Cox. "In 1990, Spencer and I went together to get tested for HIV. He tested positive. And he broke down. It was the first time I'd seen Spencer cry."  But after going through the stages of  grief and bargaining, and for him voguing, pranking friends and playing games, and, arranging divergent funeral plans, given to multiple family members.  The defiant grew humor more and more pronounced.  He lost touch with Cox after the Medius institute failed to gain support. "He stopped calling. I wish I'd known he was the case study for what he was framing to study."

"Last Eulogy," Peter Staleystated, as if the last one standing.   He recalled the ten or so activists formed a group to handle the service almost immediately after Cox died.  "It was very early ACT UP. There were only a few small fights.  We imaged this might be like the gym scene from Carrie only I was the one who was cut in half.... But it still could... He would have wanted it that way." Everyone roared in laughter. 

Staley recalled the science based activism of Treatment and Data, of Cox slamming the FDA and the federal response as inadequate as they churned out their third azt spin-off.  "It was a wonder watching him awe the FDA."  And then to watch him pivoting toward a larger, more data driven process, in support of health care for all. Eight million lives saved but what of his relationship to crystal?  "Are there lessons we can learn?" asked Staley. "There are thousands of us going through a similar stress."  The debate between treatment activists and harm reductionists must find some common ground.  "All of us have unprocessed grief, from stigma from a community which turned away from us and said we were no longer its problem. That was his call to action and we should take it on."

Staley finished with a quote from "3275" in Last Watch of the Night, by Paul Monette.  "We queers on Revelation hill, tucking our skirts about us so as not to touch our Mormon neighbors, died of the greed of power, because we were expendable. If you mean to visit any of us, it had better be to make you strong to fight that power. Take your languor and easy tears somewhere else. Above all, don't pretty us up. Tell yourself: None of this had to happen. And then go make it stop, with whatever breath you have left. Grief is a sword, or it is nothing."

After the service I talked with the woman behind me who had been crying.  Her half brother had been sick for years.  And they thought  he was on his last legs before protease inhibitors.  Now he's still at it.  She credits Cox and company for that. And we laughed a little. 

It felt good to stare down that grief, to move through out, and come out the other side.

Later I talked with Staley, thanking him and noting I heard this theme all year long.

Walking outside I saw Jim Eigo.  "It actually feels OK to think about this stuff.  That was an amazing memorial." He said he agreed.

It felt good to know what people had done for themselves I thought to myself on the ride home.

It is a pleasure seeing so many activists in so many corners of the city grieving, celebrating, greeting, building their own communities of resistance, through art, stories, and memories and care.  This is the best of what activism can be.

These movements are all intersectional anyway. Peter Staley tweeted about feeling overwhelmed after the Sandy Hook shooting. "I'm wrecked. Best speech of Obama's career. "Are we prepared to say we are helpless in the face of such carnage?" It is why today we march for MLK, who was himself killed by a gun, calling for gun control.  Last night my kids made signs for the march across the Brooklyn Bridge, where we'll we aspire to build a more caring, less violent world.

Happy birthday MLK, Goodbye Spencer Coxs and Aaron Schwartz.

Seismologik Intelligence... aaron swartz